In the blink of an eye, Alfonso Fanjul, GSB ’59, and his family lost the business they’d spent generations working to create.
But hard work and a great education helped Fanjul, the CEO of Florida Crystals, restart in United States, and he told an audience of Gabelli School of Business students they could do the same.
Fanjul’s appearance at the Rose Hill campus on Feb. 5, was the highlight of the college’s International Business Week, which brought together experts in global business for lectures and lunches.
In his talk, Fanjul traced the path of his ancestors’ immigration from Spain to Cuba, where his family eventually came to own the largest sugar plantation on the island. His family fled to Florida in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s government took power.
“I had just finished school and had gone back to Cuba, and was sitting in the family office, and Fidel Castro’s people came in to discuss what was going to happen. We sat down with lawyers, and I had a yellow pad and pencil, and they put machine guns on the table,” he said.
“We chatted for awhile, and then the leader grabbed the machine gun, pointed to the map on the wall where we had the different properties the company owned, looked at me, and said ‘We’re going to take it all away.”
Fanjul’s family was able to rebuild their life in Florida, starting with the purchase of the 4,000-acre Osceola Sugar Mill. Over the years, the company slowly added more sugar plantations and refineries to its portfolio, including Florida Crystals, which enabled the company to sell directly to consumers for the first time in 1991, and Domino Sugar in 2001.
Today the Fanjul Corporation’s holdings make it the largest sugar producer in the world, with five sugar mills, ten sugar refineries, five power plants, one rice mill, one alcohol plant and two furfural plants, 375,000 acres of farming and 50,000 head of cattle. The company has also expanded into real estate, including a resort, an airport and a deepwater port in the Dominican Republic.
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Fanjul met with members of the Fordham soccer team after his speech.
Photo by Michael Dames
Recalling his time at Rose Hill in the 1950s, he said the first English words he mastered were “push” and “pull,” which he needed to know in order to get into classrooms.
“I don’t think it really has changed as much. I’m sure that you have the same caring, loving priests that I had in my time,” Fanjul said.
He advised students to be polite, play by the rules, return every phone call and e-mail, and, when in meetings, to find reasons to justify their attendance. They should also not take their education for granted.
“I thought I was going to go home to run the family business, and what happened was all I had was a piece of paper,” he said.
“Here was I was back in America, trying to start all over again, and if it hadn’t been for the education that I got at Fordham, I guarantee that I wouldn’t be where I am today.”